There are no two opinions about the fact that a strong and stable government at the Centre is crucial not only for the political stability of the country but also for the formulation of significant internal and external policies and their execution. The dependence of the government for its survival on the support of other parties and groups weakens its ability to do so. We have seen how during the UPA-I, Comrade Surjit used to demand of Dr Manmohan Singh, prior consultation and concurrence regarding negotiations on the Civil Nuclear Agreement with the United States. Following the Coalition Dharma isn’t always in the best national interests. Remember the saga of allocation of 2G streams? The Minister of IT, belonging to a coalition partner didn’t pay much heed to what the Prime Minister had instructed. Still, the Prime Minister was reluctant to sack him as the Minister’s party could pull the rug under his feet by withdrawing its support.
Running a coalition government smoothly and effectively is inherently tough unless you are a genius and innately friendly and reconciling soul like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who successfully ran a government of 28 coalition partners for full five years and took major domestic and foreign policy decisions. Or you use other means to convert your minority support in the Parliament into majority as did PM Narsimha Rao who not only survived, though he wasn’t from the famed Nehru Gandhi family but dared to introduce transformative economic liberalization policies with the help of his Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh which propelled India on the path of unprecedented economic progress and changed our lives beyond recognition.
While party and its organization matter and party manifestos often list their priorities and promises, in the hero-worshipping India, at the time of the general election, it’s the top leader who galvanizes the cadre and attracts voters, and leads the party to victory. Each party has its election mascot not necessarily the party president. For the INC, for decades, it was Jawaharlal Nehru followed by his daughter Indira, except in the post Emergency election when she suffered total decimation and the first election of Rajiv Gandhi when he received nearly 4/5th majority in the parliament in the aftermath of the assassination of his mother.
For the BJP in 2014, though the RSS carried out countrywide spadework and BJP workers worked hard, it was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi ( Veteraan LK Advani was unceremoniously dumped ) who crisscrossed the whole country, addressed hundreds of election rallies articulating his vision with his enviable oratorical skills and brought home for the BJP, for the first time, the full majority in Lok Sabha. Confident Modi sought votes in his own name: Abki Bar Modi Sarkar (the slogan: Abki Bar BJP Sarkar was junked within hours). For the first time, the 130-year-old Congress party managed just 44 seats and lost its status as the official Opposition party. In 2019, campaigning on the record of his performance in the first term, Modi bettered his own record as BJP recorded 304 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Congress harping on BJP’s misgovernance, Rafael deal, and “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan under its President Rahul Gandhi, who lost his own seat in Amethi, improved its tally but its 52 seats again denied it the status of the official Opposition.
Thanks to the very weak opposition and lack of unity among the opposition parties, the BJP allegedly bulldozes its policy decisions through its brute majority without much discussion and with fewer references to the Select Committees of the Parliament or through Ordinances. Unable to do much else, the opposition parties raise slogans, rush to the well, tear away bills, disrupt speeches, force adjournments, and stage dharnas outside under the statue of Mahatma Gandhi as has been the case for a week, following the suspension of 16 MPS of Rajya Sabha belonging to TMC, INC and Shiv Sena. The waste of Indian taxpayers’ money when houses are adjourned almost daily and the entire session is washed out seems to bother none.
The need for a strong opposition has never been more urgent; not to stall the government policies but to act as a constructive watchdog to insist on full debate and deliberation and demand scrutiny, transparency and accountability and to flag issues of larger national and public interests.
136-year old INC congress has shrunken, presently; it has governments in less than half a dozen states. Its top leader, who calls shots but doesn’t hold a formal post, has lost many elections in the last 10 years. Even when his party wins, it isn’t able to retain its hold as happened in Madhya Pradesh and Goa.
In 2019, in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress managed to win just one seat— Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli. The G-23 Congress leaders have neither the charisma nor the clout nor the ground-level support to challenge the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka Triumvirate. Except for grabbing a few headlines occasionally, they have achieved little. The Trimurti of the congress suffering from ostrich syndrome is unable to see the party’s utterly dismal, disappointing, disheartening, and demoralizing state across the country. Intriguingly, they seem cool about the existential crises which the party is facing. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Congress is crippled by the leadership crises. It needs the change of Guard! But where is the Guard?
When Mamata Banerjee sarcastically asks where the UPA is, the Congress hits the roof! When Prashant Kishor quips: “the Gandhis don’t have a divine right to rule, the Congress seethes with anger.” These are undiplomatic and blunt comments, but aren’t they spot on?
The Congress leaders rebut these disparaging remarks by pointing out that it accounted for around 20% votes and in the 2019 General election and there was a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress on 190-200 seats. Besides, despite repeated electoral debacles, in all opinion polls for the top post, Rahul Gandhi comes second only to Narendra Modi who commands over 20 point lead. Rahul emerges ahead of every other BJP leader including Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh. So, realistically, can there be a credible anti-Modi united Opposition Front without Congress? The idea of Pawar and Mamata to form a non-congress UPA is not based on ground realities; it is wishful thinking.
But Congress’s claim to lead the Opposition is also flawed. Each election has its own momentum. Going by the current public perception of the Congress party, it isn’t likely to retain its 2019 support base. In direct leadership Contest with Modi, Rahul stands no chance. So, will it serve the interests of the Opposition to choose a leader who is easy fodder for Narendra Modi?
But two politicians have trounced the combination of the oratory and charisma of Modi, the organizational strategy of Amit Shah, groundwork of the RSS, and the full might of the government machinery, not once but twice—Mamata Bannerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. Despite frequent spokes put by the LG whom the High Court had declared the Principal Administrator of the NCR of Delhi Kejriwal has created an unshakable grass-root support base thanks to his people-friendly schemes. And Mamata is a genuine mass leader with a cult following. This year, she singlehandedly repelled the fiercest and relentless campaign by Modi and Shah; more stridently they attacked her, more solidly her supporters stood by her.
If Congress seriously wants to counter Modi it has no option but to align with Mamata and Kejriwal across the country. Congress’s pan India presence and organizational network and Mamata and Kejriwal’s daredevil courage, inexhaustible energy, deep commitment, street smart rhetoric, and ability to campaign tirelessly, if harnessed as partners, can prove to be formidable opposition in the next election. They might not be able to unseat Modi but can create in the Parliament a strong opposition front that will keep the government on the toes and strengthen democracy.
In national interest and for strengthening democracy, Congress should invite Mamata to lead the Front. But will they?
The writer, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs. The views expressed are his personal.